This post provides a blueprint to consider the full scope of factors that need addressing for better health. Whilst nutrition, exercise, sleep and stress are often discussed, there are other fundamental aspects to improving health that need even more urgent attention. If you’re unsure about anything I’m referring to, make sure you subscribe on my YouTube channel because these are the sort of topics I cover.
So firstly, what is health? Thinking of health as an absence of disease is often unhelpful. A person can be metabolically unhealthy even with a normal weight and no medical conditions. Just because a disease has not yet manifested, does not mean you are healthy.
Instead, I prefer to think of health as a spectrum of mental and physical resilience. The more mentally and physically resilient you become, the more healthy you will be. If you develop a medical disease, you may well become less resilient, but it’s not necessarily a given. In fact, sometimes a diagnosis is the catalyst to drive someone towards better health.
Thinking of health in this way is useful if you are ever diagnosed with a chronic condition, as it helps prevent you just giving up on pursuing a healthy lifestyle, which is obviously not a beneficial attitude. There are always lifestyle interventions you can take which will impact the severity of disease. And if you have no medical conditions, there is always scope to improve your quality of life, reduce your future risk, and make decisions that avoid negatively impacting the health of your family, friends, and the environment. So here are 7 fundamental aspects to consider, starting with the most simple, and working towards the most complicated.
The first aspect: Getting our body clocks on the right schedule. Our cells have an innate ability to keep time, but it’s vital for good health that our sleep / wake cycle is properly synced to natures day / night cycle. This means adequate exposure to bright natural outdoor light first thing in the morning, whilst preserving evening darkness by minimising circadian rhythm disrupting screens and artificial lights after sunset. This will ensure the smooth running of metabolic processes, and the optimal balance and timing of secretion for hormones such as cortisol, melatonin, testosterone and growth hormone. And of course, good sleep is the main outcome here, since poor sleep is the quickest way to reduce your mental and physical resilience.
The second aspect: Movement and exercise. The main focus here are our daily movement patterns; how active vs how sedentary we are. Next to consider would be undertaking exercise of all types (endurance, strength, balance, and flexibility) whilst avoiding injury. Different forms of exercise all come with their own unique advantages towards improving mental and physical resilience. This category becomes more complicated when we consider the impact of modern movement patterns on our bodies biomechanics, and the subsequent strain put on our joints. This includes the fundamental changes that have occurred in the way we walk and run, largely driven by modern footwear.
The third aspect: Nutrition. The simple part of nutrition is avoiding overly processed foods and non-food chemical ingredients, and instead sticking to eating whole unprocessed or minimally processed foods. This should be done within the context of some sort of time restricted eating pattern, giving a proper fast overnight, say in the 12-14 hour range at a minimum. To this could be added various exclusion or therapeutic diets that may be needed in some situations for some people, such as a ketogenic diet, as well as the benefits of occasional longer fasts, anything from say 18-72 hours. Hydration and alcohol intake can also be considered.
But what further complicates nutrition is the modern food supply, which can render even whole foods problematic. Up until very recently in human history, most people would have been intimately involved with soil, crops, and animals, with the various microbiomes of the human body positively impacted by regular interaction with microbiomes in soil and on animals. The modern world has severed most people’s connection to their food source, which has enabled and encouraged cruel intensive animal farming, and unsustainable crop farming techniques. This has worsened the quality and nutrient density of foods. Even on a whole foods diet, unless you are extremely careful to only source high quality organic produce, you’ll be regularly ingesting pesticide residues from routinely applied insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides. Therefore under nutrition, we also need to consider organic food production, regenerative farming, local food sourcing, animal welfare, and sustainable farming practises, that preserve ecosystems and the animals in them, including insects such as bees, rather than threatening them. Nutrition is well known to impact physical resilience. Also appreciated now is it’s role in mental resilience, due to the effects exerted on the brain by the gut microbiome via the gut-brain axis.
The fourth aspect: Stress. As with poor sleep, stress is a quick way to ruin your mental and physical resilience. Chronic stress wrecks the balance in activation of the 2 arms of the autonomic nervous system: fight-or-flight and rest-and-digest. The subsequent cortisol dysregulation quickly impacts other hormones including sex hormones, serotonin, dopamine and insulin. We can therefore consider stress relief activities such as breathing exercises and meditation, as well as hormetic stress such as cold water therapy and exercise. But really, we have to ask why loads of us now seem to need to do these things in order to just stay sane. It’s the root causes of stress that make it so complicated, since they lie in almost every aspect of how our societies are structured. This starts before a person is even born, with foetal brain development directly affected by maternal stress. In early life, there are massive psychological implications surrounding how modern society has tended to sever the bond between mother and baby, including lower breast feeding rates, negativity surrounding co-sleeping, buggies replacing the physical contact of carrying, and more time away from Mum at daycare and nursery. In childhood, ever more stressful schooling, alongside child centred and peer orientated upbringing, premature sexualisation and poor family cohesion, all compound the problem. And then into adulthood, with financial stress coupled with materialism, consumerism, individualism, commercialism, excessive competition, busyness and being in a constant state of rush, endless seeking of entertainment, and distraction in screens and social media, to name but a few. All at the expense of proper relationships, deep purpose, and more wholesome activities at a slower more sustainable pace of life. Add to this the increasing disconnect from the natural world many people experience and it's no wonder mental health is suffering.
The fifth aspect: Community. The possibility of real community, where people beyond that of a nuclear family have a true necessity to rely on each other on a daily basis, seems almost impossible in an age of individualism and competition, in which the state has sought to monopolise the community role. This is of course a major aspect of stress, but it's so important that it deserves a category of its own. To give just one example: 'it takes a village to raise a child’ - this truth has now been replaced by ‘it takes just Mum, who will need to pay for additional support, whilst not spending too much time out of work.’
Also to consider is that a widespread rejection of religion seems like it has left a large gap in terms of: a driving force for community life with a deep purpose, as well as the stability and grounding effect that religious ritual often provides. Secular activities often fail to provide adequate replacements, whilst tending to drive a rift between different generations, eroding intergenerational respect.
When something happens to an individual or family that threatens their mental or physical resilience, it’s the resilience of a community that could provide the support to buffer that challenge. Without proper community, combating the unhealthy trends in any of the categories discussed in this video, which tend to be fuelled by big business, governments and celebrity culture, is a much harder task.
The sixth aspect: Unique Circumstances. This covers topics such as pregnancy, childbirth, breast feeding, the menstrual cycle, menopause, palliative care, and death. Whilst modern medicine has provided some amazing benefits, this category is often a major victim of over-medicalisation, with the medical establishment tending to push fear of what could go wrong in a natural process, whilst barely mentioning the negative health impacts caused by interventions (for example, the effect of C-sections on the development of a babies gut microbiome). Becoming overly reliant on medical interventions, and fearful of these stages of life, reduces both mental and physical resilience. For the best outcomes, lifestyle interventions need to be restored as the primary focus in these areas.
The seventh aspect: Environmental Insults. By far the biggest challenge to address, and the biggest problem to human and planetary health, is the contamination of our ecosystems as a result of the industrialised world. Examples of environmental insults that we should be aiming to minimise our exposure to include: pesticides such as glyphosate and neonicotinoids, chemical fertilisers, BPA and other plastics, synthetic fibres such as polyester in clothes and carpets, microplastics, air pollution, chemical waste from industrial processes, such as dioxins and various other persistent organic pollutants (POPs), heavy metals, flame retardants, pharmaceutical drugs, synthetic hormones, antibiotics and antibacterial agents, household cleaning chemicals, parabens and a host of other harmful chemicals contained in cosmetics, fragrances, sunscreen, and other personal care products, phthalates in plastic children’s products, PFAS - the so called forever chemicals in the water-, grease-, and stain-resistant coatings of clothing and cookware, Volatile Organic Compounds from paints, glues, cleaning products, upholstered furniture, vinyl flooring, building materials and foam mattresses, as well as EMF from your mobile and wifi, just to top it off.
Toxic chemicals build up in our environment and enter food and water supplies, bioaccumulating in the human body. They can increase the risk of developing physical, mental, neurological, neurodevelopmental, allergic and autoimmune conditions as well as cancers. Most are endocrine disruptors meaning they disrupt hormone systems, notably thyroid hormones and sex hormones, which can impact sexual development and fertility. These problems will only increase as levels in the environment build up. Pretty obviously, living in ecosystems contaminated by toxic waste products will make you less physically and mentally resilient. What is the cumulative health risk of exposure to hundreds of chemicals to future generations? Unfortunately, this is an experiment that we are just at the beginning of. All those cheap convenient products that have appeared in the last 70 years are indeed too good to be true, since they either contain these chemicals, or their production depends on them. The high turnover of material possessions (that society is now hooked on) continues to accelerate the problem. Reducing turnover of material goods, including tech items, and instead turning to minimalism whilst sourcing locally and ethically produced health promoting goods is one potential starting point for addressing this huge issue.
I hope this has given you food for thought.
Dr Philip Bosanquet
The Low-Tech Lifestyle Medic
22nd June 2023